Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Italian Journal: Florence

September 24

1 a.m. End of first day back in Firenze. The Hotel Ritz is not “the Ritz.” Judy was disappointed that, even with its fine location and fantastic views of the Arno, it’s a rather conventional tourist hotel—but very clean. She was hoping for a place with more character, “a little worn, maybe even shabby, but with a real Italian feel to it.” Fodor’s guide misguided me, as did the photos on the hotel’s web site which made the hotel look very European. But Firenze is still Firenze, although in my nearly three years here I never saw so many tourists. The city is overrun with them—shapely German girls in shorts or long tight skirts; Americans shouting at each other. It’s a sad state to see my old city in, sad like it is in Gloucester, where mass tourism is no longer a threat but an actuality. People hugging guide books to their chests walk around with dazed expressions on their faces. And the Uffizi gallery was simply jammed.

The hotel couldn’t book us reservations to the Uffizi, as I’d requested, so we just waited in line and went in today at 4:00 p.m. The wait took us about thirty minutes in all, giving us an opportunity to observe the crowds moving from the Arno to Piazza Signoria through Piazzale degli Uffizi, where sidewalk vendors hawked copies of masterpieces and street artists offered to draw or paint portraits of tourists. Although crowds kept us from seeing Michaelangelo’s Holy Family up close, and Titian’s Venus, Tintoretto’s Leda and the Rembrandts at all, we managed to walk through most of the major galleries to find my old favorites—the altar pieces by Cimabue, Duccio and Giotto that Eve Borsook in her superb guide to Firenze calls “the three great Maesta`”; Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano,” the wonderful Botticellis, Piero’s portraits, the Ghirlandaios, the Massacios, the Signorellis and the Mantegnas, to name but a few of the treasures. There they were, just as they were forty years ago, many of them beautifully cleaned and restored, particularly after the flood of 1966. Halfway through the museum, we stopped in the rooftop café, which didn’t exist in my time, for the habitual “acqua minerale con gas” and a rest. From the terrace of the café we could see out over the Piazza into the city itself with its red tiled roofs.

A walk through Piazza Signoria along Via dei Calzaiuoli to Piazza del Duomo re-oriented me, and I found the Buca Niccolini on Via Ricasoli, where I’d taken nearly all my meals between 1959 and 1962, still in business!

Dinner at Angiolino tonight at 8:30 was superb. After visiting the Uffizi, we’d walked across the Arno over the Ponte Vecchio and up along Borgo San Jacopo and Via Santo Spirito to make reservations. I found the entrance dark and all the waiters eating dinner around one long table near the kitchen. Entering, I excused myself and made the reservation for 8, but as we left we decided that we needed more time to return to the hotel from Santo Spirito, so I re-entered and asked to move our prenotazione up to 8:30. The restaurant hasn’t changed in all these years. In the center of the main dining room is the old wood stove I recall. The kitchen is in full view of the diners. The waiters, older men dressed in red polo shirts, race about, serving a crowded dining room. Most of the patrons were Florentine and appeared to know the waiters well. Much banter and good cheer.

The food was remarkable. I had a pasta with zucchini flowers; Judy, spinach risotto. She ordered veal cutlets, paper thin and served with a lemon sauce, and I ordered grilled vegetables and faggioli all’uccelletto, white Tuscan beans cooked in a tomato sauce with garlic and sage, a dish I couldn’t wait to taste again. The “vino nero” was excellent, as was my cheese platter of gongonzola, pecorino, and ementhal. For dessert—“Ci penso io,” our waiter told us, “Let me worry about it.”—we had a very moist cheese pie and panna cotta,a creamy custard with fresh berries on top.

But our great welcome back tonight was an outdoor concert by a fantastic nineteen-piece Florentine swing band performing from the steps—the ringhiera— of the Palazzo Vecchio. We could hear the music—blaring trumpets, a female voice scatting high and wonderfully—right after we crossed the Arno at Ponte Vecchio. We followed the sound to the piazza and there we found a crowd of natives and tourists standing in front of the band stand, loving every minute of the old Glenn Miller, Count Basie and Duke Ellington tunes the musicians were playing expertly, everything from “Pennsylvania 6-5000” to “C-Jam Blues.” Climbing up on the Loggia dei Lanzi, we located a spot right over the piazza where we listened enthralled. The concert ended with an encore at 11:30. Some people even danced to the music, while the crowd applauded.

We walked back to the hotel along the Arno. It couldn’t have been a finer welcome, even though Judy’s disappointment with the hotel had dampened my spirits slightly. I’d chosen it not only because the prices and the location seemed ideal, but also because they offered free parking (at that time my son Jonathan was going to join us in Rome and had opted to rent a car and drive us to Firenze--unfortunately, business detained him in LA). However, the delicious lunch we had on the Euro-Star’s dining car, the speed of the train and the views of the countryside between Rome and Firenze, long green vistas of the campagna and hilly Umbria, adequately compensated us for not being able actually to drive through Tuscany (I would love to have been able to stop at Sienna).

I forgot to record my first reaction to Firenze after so many years away. As we waited in line at the station for a taxi to the hotel, I could hardly stay calm. I was sweating. My sling was soaked in perspiration. My hands shook, my eyes darted over toward Piazza Santa Maria Novella and to the palaces beyond. ‘Yes, it’s really Firenze,” I said to myself. “The city is still here.” The driver took us through Piazza della Repubblica. Skirting Piazza del Duomo, we drove in the direction of Santa Croce, turning right toward the Arno. I couldn’t take my eyes off the churches and the palazzi as we raced through the city. I recognized each street, each quartiere on sight, although a great deal of gentrification has taken place. It was hot, the sun was bright. I was anxious about the hotel, anxious about being able to get into Angiolino that night, worried that we might not be able to get tickets for the Ufizzi. I wanted Judy to love everything as much as I thought I was going to. Plunging back into the city I’ve carried in my mind all these years, I found myself returning to my youth here, the locations of so many significant encounters. But I didn’t want this trip to be nostalgic. I didn’t want to drag Judy around to all the places I’d once lived in or known. I wanted Firenze to be new again for both of us.

September 25

Midnight. It’s sweltering in Firenze, just as it was in Rome. We have air-conditioning in our room, but it is still hard for me to sleep on my back. Because of my immobilized hand I can’t assume the habitually comfortable position of sleeping on my side. By this hour the noise from the traffic along the Arno begins to die down, although it won’t ever be completely quiet, any more than it was here in my day. Then perhaps there was a window between maybe three and four a.m. when the streets quieted down; but soon the noise of cars, Vespas, delivery vans and (in those days) horse or ox-drawn wagons began all over, as the city came to life again.

We ate dinner tonight at Rivoire, the outdoor café in Piazza Signoria where Peter and Maria Denzer used to take coffee, since it is not far from their former apartment in Via dei Rustici, just behind the Palazzo Vecchio only a few steps from Via dei Neri and Borgo dei Greci. Judy had gnocchi with pesto, I had a fine pasta with spinach and cheese sauce. Good salads and a nice litre of red wine. While we ate there was a drum band playing on the steps of the Palazzo, just as the jazz band had played the night before, with people dancing or sitting around the fountain edge to listen. After dinner we walked over to Via Tornabuoni so Judy could see the shops and look for Beacci Tornabuoni, the pensione where her sister-in-law had stayed many years ago (we found it on the corner of Via del Parione and Via Tornabuoini). On the way back, we stopped to listen to a pop-rock group playing in the main café in the Piazza della Repubblica. Again, crowds in the cafes, crowds on the streets, a phenomenon I’d never witnessed here before.

Breakfast was very good at the Ritz. It came with the price of our accommodations and we had it buffet style in a nice dining room. There was coffee and tea, orange juice, delicious hard rolls with butter or Bel Paese cheese, cereal, yogurt and fruit—a perfect way to start the day. The wait staff was composed mostly of Asians, as were those who made up the rooms each day. We see many Asians and Africans working here in bars and cafes, or selling in the streets. There were a few African students here in my time, mostly studying agriculture or medicine, but I don’t recall ever seeing tourists from Japan, nor Asians working in hotels or restaurants. The principal work force then was made up of people from the Meridione, the South, especially Sicily, and there were many students, as well, from Naples, Bari, Apulia and Sicily.

We spent the late morning at the fabulous Della Ragione collection of modern art in 5, Piazza Signoria. Representing Italian art of the 20th century, the collection was the gift to Firenze of a famous collector and it includes the work of such notable painters as DePisis, Ottone Rosai, Morandi, and DeChirico. I also found two canvases by the former Tuscan futurist and writer Ardegno Soffici, whose work I came to love when I lived here.

Rosai, whose murals adorn the railroad station, didn’t attract me at that time. I suspect it’s because I was more taken by abstract painting, by the work of Vedova and Scanavino; even Soffici seemed more dramatic than Rosai. Now his Cezanne-influenced Tuscan landscapes, soft and marvelously flat, moved me terribly. And I loved his portraits of other artists and writers, including Florentine-born Pratolini., whose Chronache di poveri amanti was one of the first novels I read in Firenze. After looking carefully at the soft browns of DePisis, the understated mauves and greens of Morandi, at Rosai’s rose-colored walls and disappearing country roads, Judy said, “These are my colors. I don’t like them loud.” I replied, “That’s because they are the colors of the Italian earth.”

When we discovered that the second floor was closed for renovations, and after I’d expressed my disappointment to the women attendants about having come all this distance particularly to see the paintings of Carlo Levi and Renato Guttuso on that floor, the women agreed that since the workmen were having lunch, Judy and I could go up “Tanto per dare un occhiata,”—“Just to have a glance.” One of the women led us upstairs and, indeed, I found two lovely works by Levi, whose painting in reality moves me much more than reproductions of it, and several by Guttuso, whose raw power has not faded for me since I’d first seen it highlighted in the 1960 Biennale, which I visited with Peter Denzer and Paul Hamilton on our way back from Merano and the Alto Adige.

After lunch in the cool shade at Rivoire, we walked down Via dei Servi to the Academia through Piazza Santissima Annuziata. From there I took Judy past the university to Piazza San Marco so we could check the bus schedule for Fiesole (just as I remembered, bus number 7 left every twenty minutes). I showed Judy where my room in the Soldi family’s apartment at 32, Via dei Servi was located, right across the street from Rigacci’s art supply store, which was still there, a few doors up from a fine bookstore I also remembered. Before reaching my old room, we turned left walking over to Via Bufalini 3 where I taught English at the Academia Internazionale. It’s now called Scuola Leonardo da Vinci, but it doesn’t appear to have changed, except for the entrance to the Pucci palace, which housed the classrooms and teachers’ lounge on the second floor. In that foyer there is now a sort of student cafeteria and lounge. We walked in and sat at a small round table among the students while drinking some acqua minerale. There were bulletin boards with school notices on them, advertisements for jobs, travel.

It was wonderfully quiet in Piazza Santissima Annuziata with the water splashing in the fountain, the noise of the traffic muffled by the high walls of the church and the palaces that enclose it. We sat on the site of the monastery where Paul Hamilton and I used to eat dai frati, literally “at the brothers” where you could get an entire meal, including a quarter litre of red wine for 350 lire. It’s a pensione now, called Loggiata dei Serviti and we thought it would be fun some time to stay here where it’s so peaceful. Across the street is the entrance to a more expensive looking five-star hotel.

After checking the bus schedule, we entered the Accademia to see Michaelangelo’s “stone prisoners” and the magnificent “David.” It is still quite breathtaking. We walked all around the huge figure, dozens of us, while the sculpture hall rang with the voices of tour guides. Then we entered the picture galleries, where I was again at home with Cimabue and the wonderful Byzantine-like altar pieces I can never get enough of, the starkness of them, the primitive techniques, the direct emotion. Perhaps I like them because they remind me of the icons in the Greek Orthodox churches of my childhood, icons that used to fascinate and frighten me at the same time.

September 26

6:30 p.m. on the Euro-Star to Rome. As the packed train plunges through the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside, farms, villas, vineyard hills spread out in all directions. I’m again amazed at how cultivated Italy remains.

We got up early, packed and stored our bags at the hotel. Then we called a taxi, which took us across the Arno and south to Candele, where we drove to see Villa La Massa, a marvelous old villa on the Arno that has been turned into a resort hotel. Judy stayed in it when she was seventeen years old. At that time it was run by the family that owned it. Now it is part of a European resort chain. There is a fine restaurant and a huge swimming pool. Trees shade the property that is set well off the main road with beautiful vistas of the river and nearby farms.

When Judy told the manager that’d she’d been there many years ago, he was interested in that portion of the villas’ history. “We know nothing about it,” he said, so Judy offered to send him a copy of the brochure she kept from her “grand tour” that summer, six weeks through Europe with a group of girls from Farmington.

From Candele we asked the driver take us to Piazzale Michelangelo, where I wanted to take a picture of the entire city and then to San Miniato al Monte, which Judy had never visited. There was a mass in progress, but were able to get a look at the beautiful mosaics and the city, again, from the long steps down from the church. There was a wedding about to be celebrated. We watched the rather overweight bride getting out of a limousine. “Brutta,” our driver said, as he drove us along the viale back down into the city through Porta Romano, past the Pitti, stopping one street over from Santa Maria del Carmine, where I wanted to show Judy the Massaccio frescos in the Brancacci chapel.

While waiting for the chapel to open at 1 p.m., Judy and I walked across the piazza to a bar where we bought a couple of bottles of water. As we paid, a little man in a blue cloth jacket approached, the first person in Firenze I’d seen wearing a basco, the traditional working man’s beret one saw everywhere in Tuscany. I had lamented to Judy that not only had the beret seemed to disappear, but the way of life of those who wore it seemed also to have vanished.

In any event, he came up to us and pointed to my arm in its green sling made from Judy’s lovely silk scarf.

“Anch’io sono infirmo,” he said. “I’m disabled, too.” While we stood there commiserating with each other, it broke my heart to hear once more the intonation of Sanfrediano in his speech.

The frescos in the Brancacci chapel have all been restored with the support of the Olivetti corporation. They were as powerful as they seemed so many years ago, when, on late afternoons, I often walked from my apartment in Via dei Fossi across the river. Then I’d sit on the low wall of the cloister’s garden just outside the chapel, with the well in the center, flowers planted around the edges of the garden. It was cool there at day’s end and I could sit in silence away from the sound of the traffic meditating on the frescos that I could never get enough of, images such as the starkly realistic expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise or the Tribute of St. Peter that served to teach so many artists and sculptors, including Michaelangelo, who is said to have spent years studying them.

From the Carmine we walked back across the river, stopping so I could show Judy the entrance to Via dei Fossi 4, where I’d moved after living in Via dei Servi. Then we turned toward the Signoria, avoiding Piazza Santa Maria Novella and passing through Via della Spada, where I used to buy meat, vegetables, bread and wine. We took Via Strozzi to Piazza della Repubblica. Turning left on Via dei Calzaiuoli we had one last walk through Piazza del Duomo before proceeding back along Via dei Calzaiuoli among the Sunday afternoon strollers to the Signoria. At no time during our entire stay in Firenze were we able to get into the cathedral simply to walk around inside of it. Lines of tourists ringed the entire structure, mostly people who wanted to climb the hundreds of steps to the top of the cupola. I was dying to show Judy some of the Duomo’s treasures, including Michaelangelo’s Pieta` and the marvelous Michelino fresco of Dante explaining the Commedia; and I wanted once more to see Uccello’s odd portrait of the condottiere Sir John Hawkwood, which always seemed to me so out of place in a religious edifice, but we never got into the door. Actually, we stuck our noses through once; but the sacristan told us the cathedral was closed to visitors due to a private mass. Access was only allowed to the cupola; but neither of us had the energy or the interest to climb all those stairs to the top. Constant crowds kept us out of the Baptistery, too.

We had our last lunch in Firenze under the umbrellas at Cavallino in Piazza Signoria. It’s the restaurant that R.W. B. Lewis recommends in his retrospective City of Florence, and the food was excellent. We both ordered gnocchi in a light pesto cream sauce and baked orata, which came whole. The waiter boned it for us and it was fresh and delicate with just a hint of sage for flavoring. For her contorno Judy had breaded and fried zucchini and I ordered faggioli all’uccelleto. We shared a salad and the wine, as it was everywhere in Firenze, was excellent. We only asked for “vino della casa” and were never disappointed.

By the time we’d asked for our conto, most of the other patrons had left and our waiter was leisurely clearing their tables. We talked back and forth while he worked.

“Scommetto che sia un tendine,” he said , pointing to my arm in the sling. “I bet it’s your tendon. I had one too. Come si fanno male!”

After lunch I was taking pictures of Rivoire and the piazza to send to the Denzers when our Minolta jammed. I couldn’t get the film to rewind, so I decided to leave it alone, hoping that we hadn’t lost most of the roll I’d already taken. Judy suggested that we buy a disposable camera right there in the piazza at Alinari. We took pictures of Rivoire and the Palazzo Vecchio and Judy got some of me standing in front of the Neptune fountain, where I’d had a picture taken thirty-six years before with Douglas Stewart, my Canadian art historian friend. Then we walked over to Via dei Rustici 6 and took some pictures of the entrance to the Denzer’s apartment before walking back to the Ritz, where we retrieved our luggage and took a cab to the station.

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